Mick tossed his head back and took a slug from his brown paper bag,
“This shit ain’t so bad once you get the mouth fer it!”
“Ahhh. Woo-wee goddamn!” He grimaced, shaking his head a bit while wiping a trail from his beard.
“Keep yerself warm, would ya Early boy?”
Earl took the paper bag and shot it back; for a moment he felt liquor warm before the coldest winter in 30 years regained his attention.
The two walked down Atlantic Blvd close to each other, hands stuffed in their pockets; snow coming up through the holes in Mick’s boots and undoing the paper bag’s intent. Mick liked to talk but rarely complained, Earl had no idea he was freezing.
As they did most days, the two separated only to toss through alley dumpsters, hoping some of the local restaurants had leftovers to throw away. Mick had been homeless for a long time but Earl didn’t know specifics. He only knew he managed to survive, was damn good at it; he managed to keep his head just above water.
Earl lost everything 6 months ago. He skated from job to job, had a college degree, but it was a paper he’d happily burn to keep warm now. He was fired for “misconduct”, tried to fight it with the state, but lost. Sold everything, left his apartment, and lived in his car. Finally sold the car too. When he found himself on the streets, he and Mick happened upon each other while searching for food on Montgomery, between Scullio’s Deli and a Dunkin’.
“Hey-ya, boy. Never seen ya around. Findin’ anything worth a good damn?”
“Nothing.” As his attempts to find work dwindled, so too did his want to speak.
“Well I hit the goddamn jackpot!” Mick held up a bag of day old pastries and bread.
“Come on over, boy. I got us a feast’ere!”
Their first dinner together was in May. Since then, Earl tagged alongside Mick without many words, though he happily split his findings down the middle. Unlike Mick, Earl’s mouth was just under waves of depression, exhaustion, and life. He was afraid to open it; he might drown.
Mick liked Earl. He liked his serious youthful face, his eyes that never closed. He liked that there was still hope in him. He liked that he didn’t speak much.
“Every person I meet’s gotta tell me their shitty story, ya know? I know th’ending to ’em all: the son’s a bitches ended up on the street. Way I see it, story don’t matter, boy, just survivin’.” Mick reflected on that thought and seemed pleased, “Yeah boy, if nothin’ else. Remember that.”
Earl never told Mick he graduated with a degree in English. When Mick said it, it made sense. Fuck the story. Odysseus couldn’t help him on the streets, and fuck Hamlet, too.
However dismissive he was of his education, Earl couldn’t help but think of Mick as every one of his favorite protagonists. Never thought of a lead character with greasy long hair, longer beard, and smelling of body odor and foul, but Mick was more like the real deal than any character, any professor, anybody he’d ever met. His face was weathered, marked with lines and darkness that came from time spent on gravel, under newspapers. When he smiled every canyon on his face came to life. He came to even admire Mick’s oversized blue coat with dark dumpster stains. Mick wore it with pride: his blue stained badge of courage.
“Doesn’t look like ya found anything. Ahh, shit.” Mick took another swig from his paper bag, the only thing in his own hands.
“Woo, shit! Ya know, the way I see it Early boy,” Mick started, “whenever we can’t find somethin’a’eat, I always have the best dreams about food. Wake up fuller’then after some goddamn crumbs!” He poked Earl’s coat and laughed, his guffaws visible in the winter air.
Earl was starving. He had a headache, though those he got most days. His coat was damp from snow the night before. He thought himself nothing like Mick. Though he rarely spoke, most of his thoughts were panicked, complaints.
“Ahh fuck it for now. Let’s go check on my gal. Make sure she’s still kickin’.”
Vicky was another mystery to Earl. He had no idea how she and Mick had come to meet, but knew that Mick cared about her over any other junkie down the alley. Earl figured she’d been with him before he’d started following Mick but she couldn’t shake the habit. She couldn’t have fit in with Mick’s demand that they “just survive”, she was always out of it. They’d usually visit her a few times a week; brought her whatever food Mick could spare. Earl was never expected to give some of his spoils but started chipping in once he saw Mick’s eyes change when they met Vicky’s. Something came alive with her, maybe it was his past. There was no question that Mick loved her, it was a trait Earl admired about Mick; he felt loved by him, too.